Heart Rate and Heart Rate Variability Correlate with Clinical Reasoning Performance and Self-Reported Measures of Cognitive Load

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Scientific Reports








© 2019, The Author(s). Cognitive load is a key mediator of cognitive processing that may impact clinical reasoning performance. The purpose of this study was to gather biologic validity evidence for correlates of different types of self-reported cognitive load, and to explore the association of self-reported cognitive load and physiologic measures with clinical reasoning performance. We hypothesized that increased cognitive load would manifest evidence of elevated sympathetic tone and would be associated with lower clinical reasoning performance scores. Fifteen medical students wore Holter monitors and watched three videos depicting medical encounters before completing a post-encounter form and standard measures of cognitive load. Correlation analysis was used to investigate the relationship between cardiac measures (mean heart rate, heart rate variability and QT interval variability) and self-reported measures of cognitive load, and their association with clinical reasoning performance scores. Despite the low number of participants, strong positive correlations were found between measures of intrinsic cognitive load and heart rate variability. Performance was negatively correlated with mean heart rate, as well as single-item cognitive load measures. Our data signify a possible role for using physiologic monitoring for identifying individuals experiencing high cognitive load and those at risk for performing poorly during clinical reasoning tasks.

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